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World: AIDS Considered Deadliest Disease In History

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 15 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL's latest Health Report concerns a chilling new forecast about the spread of HIV/AIDS: that it may soon surpass the bubonic plague as the deadliest disease in history. We also report on the promise of new treatment for malaria now that the disease's genome has been mapped, how an influenza vaccination may help prevent strokes, and research indicating that hand-held electronic games may be hazardous to children's health.

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AIDS May Pass Plague as World's Deadly Epidemic

The head of a U.S. public health institution says AIDS will soon surpass the bubonic plague as the world's deadliest health epidemic if a vaccine is not developed and people currently diagnosed with HIV do not receive medication to prolong their lives.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Peter Lamptey, president of the Family Health International AIDS Institute -- a nongovernmental agency -- said despite significant technological advances in medicine, AIDS is spreading at an alarming rate across the globe. If not checked, he said it will rival the number of deaths caused by the bubonic plague in the 14th century.

Bubonic plague, also known as Black Death, is caused by a bacterium carried by rats and carried from rats to humans by fleas. During medieval times, bubonic plague killed more than 40 million people in Europe and Asia. Today, bubonic plague is easily treated with antibiotics.

As for AIDS, Lamptey says the disease could soon pass bubonic plague as the world's most deadly epidemic because so far, researchers and scientists have not been able to stop the spread of HIV. While life-prolonging drugs are available, particularly in Western countries, the medication is far too expensive for the poorest and those most vulnerable to the disease.

For example, Lamptey said, there are now about 28 million people with HIV living in Africa, and only about 10,000 of them are receiving the special medications.

According to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, known as UNAIDS, AIDS is now the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa. Worldwide it is the fourth biggest killer.

"AIDS has killed 25 million people so far. Another 40 million people are currently living with HIV. If these people don't get any treatment -- and I realize that treatment is not a cure -- but at least in the Western countries it is prolonging life long enough, and hopefully by the time we have something more substantive and more effective, some of these people can be saved completely."

Lamptey said Africa is not the only region suffering from an AIDS epidemic. He said the speed with which the disease is spreading is especially alarming in countries such as Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia. He said that according to data released by UNAIDS, the incidence of HIV is rising faster in Russia and Central Asia than in any other region in the world.

In 2001, UNAIDS said there were an estimated 250,000 new infections in the region, raising to 1 million the number of affected people.

Ukraine is particularly noted for suffering from an explosion of adult HIV cases. According to UNAIDS, Ukraine has the highest rate of adult HIV infection in the region. Drug use is cited as responsible for three-quarters of all HIV infections in the nation.

In Russia as well, the vast majority of HIV cases are the result of using shared needles during drug use, according to UNAIDS data.

The male-female ratio among newly detected AIDS cases also has narrowed in Russia. Until recently, around three-fourths of those infected with the virus were men. Now, two-thirds of the victims are men. This indicates that young Russian women are now at an increasingly high risk of HIV infection.

In Estonia, HIV infections have soared from 12 in 1999 to 1,112 in the first nine months of 2001. And outbreaks of HIV-related needle sharing and drug use are also being reported in several Central Asian republics, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Lamptey said that part of the problem for the rapid spread of AIDS in the region as well as across the globe is due to a misunderstanding and misinformation about how HIV is transmitted. A study conducted by the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) seems to confirm this.

In the study, over 50 percent of young people ages 15-24 in more than a dozen countries, including Ukraine and Uzbekistan, had never even heard of AIDS or had serious misconceptions about how HIV is transmitted.

Lamptey told RFE/RL that the best way to stop the onslaught of the disease is threefold: to develop a safe and effective vaccine against HIV; to better disseminate information about how the disease is transmitted; and to improve access to treatment and drugs to all countries over the next 10 to 15 years. If these steps are not taken, Lamptey said, at its current rate, AIDS could kill as many as 75 million people worldwide.

"So, the comparison that I was making is that, in terms of the devastation, AIDS can kill as many people or more as the Black Death."

Jane Silver, vice president for public policy at the American Foundation for AIDS Research, told RFE/RL that in theory, she agrees with Lamptey, but says it would be more productive to channel energy and money into scientific research to find a cure, not making historical comparisons.

"There's no question that this is a plague of huge proportions. And trying to decide if it is better or worse than the black plague probably is not that helpful. We actually know what needs to be done and we really need to do it."

Silver says that if the world does not act quickly and provide united leadership in battling AIDS, then Lamptey's figures will actually be an "underestimate." She says that according to figures provided by the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, 14,000 people are infected every day with HIV.

"[A] devastating epidemic requires a coordinated, comprehensive, international approach from governments, from the private sector, from community-based organizations. And until the epidemic is brought under control, no one is doing enough."

Silver said life-prolonging drugs need to be made available quickly to people throughout the world. She said having the pharmaceutical companies drastically reduce the cost of those medications would be helpful.

According to Silver, her organization has already invested millions of dollars in the search for a safe and effective vaccine against HIV. She said that while she is unable to forecast when such a vaccine might be available, encouraging progress is being made.

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U.S., British Researchers Map Malaria Genome

Scientists from the U.S. and Britain have decoded the genome, or genetic code, of malaria, which may mean more effective treatment for the disease.

Malaria has been virtually wiped out in the U.S. and Europe, but it is spreading in Africa, where it kills more than 1 million children each year, according to the World Health Organization of the United Nations.

The research was carried out by the Institute for Genomic Research, a private facility near Washington, and the Sanger Center near Cambridge, England. The effort took six years and cost about $20 million.

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Study Says Flu Vaccine May Help Prevent Stroke

French researchers say vaccines against influenza may also help prevent strokes in patients ages 60 to 75.

The researchers write in an article in the American medical journal "Stroke" that a study of 270 people in that age group found that those who had the vaccines lowered their risk of stroke by about 40 percent.

Previous studies have associated stroke with infection, and the researchers involved in the current study say the flu vaccine might help prevent strokes by strengthening the participants' immune systems.

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Hand-Held Electronic Games May Cause Disabilities

A group of doctors in England is warning that playing electronic games on hand-held consoles can cause painful and even disabling injuries similar to those brought on by using tools like pneumatic drills and chain saws.

The doctors write in a letter to the "British Medical Journal" about the case of a 15-year-old boy who suffered hand pain from using what is called the "rumble board" effect on his Sony PlayStation console. His hands became swollen when cold and painful when warmed.

According to the doctors' letter, the boy played the game, using the "rumble board," up to seven hours a day.

(Washington correspondent Andrew F. Tully contributed to this report)

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